Matthew 01:18-25 / 4 Advent A / 19 December 2010 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Is 7:14)
King Ahaz was nervous, literally shaking like leaves blowing in the wind. His enemies to the north, Syria and the northern kingdom, had forged an alliance and were planning an attack. The southern kingdom, Judah, was on high alert. King Ahaz was busy inspecting the aqueduct. Water is everything when it comes to national security. He contemplated cutting a deal with Egypt. You couldn’t beat those Egyptian horses and chariots.
The Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure the troubled king. His message was simple and direct: “Don’t worry. Don’t do anything. Be quiet, listen, and trust. Those two kings you are worrying about are nothing but a couple of smoldering stumps about to be snuffed out. In fact, within 65 years, the northern kingdom will be broken to pieces. Don’t be afraid. Trust the Lord.”
Isaiah offers a sign. “Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. Go ahead, Ahaz, ask the Lord for a sign. He’ll show you. But Ahaz refused. He wanted neither sign nor Word. Yet Isaiah gives him a sign anyway:
Behold, the young woman is conceiving and bearing a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.
I translate it intentionally in that way, so that you hear what Ahaz heard. In the time it takes for a young woman to conceive and bear a son, in nine months, you will know “Immanuel” – God is with us. Nine months, Ahaz. Don’t do anything for nine months, and you will see that God is with us. And in twelve short years, before “Immanuel” knows the difference between good and evil, those two kings you worry so much about will be gone. Trust, O King. Hear the Word of the Lord and trust.
Ahaz did not trust. He did not believe. He engineered his own salvation and failed. He refused the sign of Immanuel, God with us, and so he got the opposite. Reject God’s salvation and there is only one alternative. Isaiah and his wife would have a son shortly after this incident. They didn’t name him Immanuel, God with us. They named him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means “the spoil speeds, the destruction hastens.” In other words, your destruction is at hand. Refuse Immanuel, and you wind up Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Refuse salvation and condemnation is all that’s left.
And then this Word of the Lord spoken through the prophet sat quietly like seed buried in the soil of history. For 700 years it lay there silently fallow, waiting for
the fulness of time, the perfect moment, when the stump of David’s family tree would sprout a righteous Shoot. The Word of the Lord came to a young woman named Mary in Nazareth who was in the process of getting married to a man named Joseph. She was a virgin. Their marriage had not yet been consummated. And now she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and the Word. With God nothing is impossible. A virgin conceives a son. God is with us. Immanuel.
The word to Ahaz through Isaiah now takes on its fullest meaning. Its fulfillment. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. God is with us. He is one with us and one of us. And He became one with us by way of a virgin mother. Eve heard the promise in her virginity, that through her seed would come a Promised One who would crush the head of the liar who had deceived her. And now Mary in her virginity hears the Word that fulfills all things – “you will be with child by the Holy Spirit.” Immanuel. God is with us.
Mary and Joseph were not scientific people like we are. They didn’t know about the genetic code but they did know a thing or two about biology when it comes to how babies were conceived. You don’t need molecular biology to figure that out. Mary didn’t believe it, at first. She asked, “How can this be, for I haven’t slept with a man.” She knew virgins don’t conceive.
Joseph did too. He knew virgins don’t conceive, and you can only imagine what was going through his mind when he heard the news from Mary. There’s a cute video on Facebook that recreates the scene between Mary and Joseph in our digital age. She sends him a text message, “Joseph, we need to talk.” And then Joseph posts on his Facebook page, “Hurt and confused.” It’s cute, but it makes a good point. What a conversation that must have been! Joseph didn’t believe her. Not at first. He wanted to call off the marriage. But he was a good and decent man, and instead of exposing her to public shame, he planned to divorce her privately so that she could marry the father of her child.
Then the Word of the Lord came to Joseph. It’s always the Word. To Ahaz, to Mary, to Joseph. The power of God is in the Word – to create, to destroy, to save. The Word of the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation” Paul says. The Word comes to Joseph in a dream. This Joseph dreams just like the Joseph in Genesis dreamed. An angel in a dream says to Joseph what Isaiah once said to Ahaz, “Don’t be afraid.”
Don’t be afraid to take Mary into your home as your wife. Things are not as they appear. Her child is not from another man by from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you, as his surrogate father, will call Him Y’shua, Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And Matthew adds the verse (or did the angel?) – Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel. The prophesy is sharpened and focused: Not simply “young woman” but “virgin;” not only “she” but “they” shall call Him Immanuel – God with us.
There are two great miracles in the Christmas story. The first, of course, is that a virgin conceives. It’s biologically impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. The second is that Joseph believed it. That is the miracle of faith. Joseph heard the Word and the Word worked faith and the obedience of faith. And unlike King Ahaz, Joseph didn’t reject the sign but received it. He took Mary to be his lawfully wedded wife. And he did not consummate that marriage, as was legally required, until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus, as he was told. Joseph heard and believed, and out of faith he obeyed. He did what the Lord asked of him.
This wouldn’t be the last time. Read on in Matthew. He flees to Egypt to escape Herod on account of a dream. He returns to Israel and settles in Nazareth because of a dream. If I’m Joseph, I’d be afraid to go to sleep at this point. At each point the Word comes to Joseph, he is inconvenienced and challenged and tested. And he quietly, faithfully obeys. In fact, there is not a single word from Joseph recorded in Scripture. As James said, “I will show you my faith by what I do.” Joseph shows his faith by what he does. He is full of faith, by the Word and Spirit, and he is faithful.
In eastern iconography, Joseph is always depicted off to the corner of things, brooding, with the devil whispering to him over his shoulder. He is doubting, wondering, questioning. Perhaps it’s true. Joseph knew enough biology to know that virgins don’t conceive, and while God had a track record of intervening with childless couples such as Abraham and Sarah, or more recently Zechariah and Elizabeth, God never pulled off something like this: A virgin conceiving and bearing a son. And perhaps Joseph had a few of those “why me?” moments that afflict the faithful when the Word interferes with our comfortable lives and leads us in directions we normally wouldn’t choose for ourselves. If tradition is correct, Joseph was a much older man, and who really needs this headache, anyway? A pregnant virgin? A virgin mother? A son who is God?
Think of faithful Joseph the next time you are inconvenienced because of your faith. Or the next time you are called by the Word outside your comfort zone. Or the next time you doubt the power of the Word to do what the Word says. That Baptism now saves you. That the Supper actually is the Body and Blood of Christ for you. That the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Think of Joseph, the husband of a pregnant Virgin, a man of faith who believed the impossible and by the faith did what was given him to do, what St. Paul calls “the obedience of faith,” without saying word. Think of Joseph, the silent surrogate father of Jesus.
This is the Word that creates and enlivens faith, the faith of Mary and Joseph, the faith of you and me. This is the Word that became Flesh in the womb of a Virgin to embrace our humanity from conception to death, literally from the womb to the tomb, and to raise it up from the dead and seat our humanity in glory at the right hand of the Father.
This is the backstory of Christmas – the prophetic Word is fulfilled; a Virgin conceives by the Word, a troubled husband-to-be is consoled by the Word and believes it. You will likely hear, or perhaps you have heard, people say that Christmas, indeed Christianity, is based on pagan myths, that all the elements of the Christmas story right down to a virgin conceiving can be found in prior paganism. And that may be true. But it doesn’t make the story false of concocted. I’d be surprised if God hadn’t sown the seeds among the pagans in their myths, just as He planted the prophetic Word in Israel’s history, just as He promised a seed of the woman to virgin Eve long ago.
Gracious Lord, grant us the faith of faithful Joseph, who heard the Word and believed the impossible – that a Virgin conceived, that the Word became Flesh, that sinners stand justified for Jesus’ sake. And believing, quietly and faithfully obeyed You.
In the name of Jesus,